The morning of December 7, 1941 on the island of Oahu was chaos. While it’s likely that most of the sailors and Marines there knew exactly what was going on, that wasn’t the case for John “Jack” Vaessen, a ship’s electrician serving aboard the former battleship USS Utah (BB-31/AG-16).

Jack Vaesson was trapped below decks aboard USS Utah

Jack Vaessen found himself trapped below decks aboard USS Utah (BB-31/AG-16)

Though Utah had long since been converted to a target and training ship, several Japanese pilots thought the ship was still armed as a battleship. Shortly after the attack began, they focused their efforts on Utah and fired six torpedoes, two of which found their target. In the belly of the  mighty ship, the 25-year-old electrician was working in the electrical power station, completely blind to what was unfolding topside.

It was obvious to Vaessen that Utah had somehow been attacked, but by whom and why would remain a mystery until later on in the day. All he did know was that his ship had started to list badly. Before he knew it, his task of keeping the lights on turned into a fight for survival.

Vaessen felt a thud and didn’t have much time to process what could have happened before water started to pour into the ship. As the ship continued to tilt, equipment began to be dislodged. While trying to navigate an already difficult situation, Vaessen found himself being pummeled by fire extinguishers, deck plates, and other loose objects.

Equipped with just a flashlight and a wrench, Jack Vaessen found it nearly impossible to find his bearings as Utah tipped over onto her side. The young electrician had to keep moving downward, toward the ship’s keel. Water continued to rise, forcing Vaessen to move quickly between compartments. He had done everything he could to keep the lights on, but as water made contact with the electrical components, they started to blow, leaving him in the dark with just the beam of his flashlight guiding the way.

USS Utah was without a loudspeaker system, so even well into the attack, Vaessen still had no idea what was happening. All he knew was that the water was rising and he needed to find some way off the ship; but with the vessel overturned, escape began to seem more and more unlikely.

USS Utah survivor Jack Vaessen celebrated his 100th birthday in 2016

USS Utah survivor Jack Vaessen celebrated his 100th birthday in 2016

Eventually, he did reach the end of the ship and found himself with no exit. Trapped, he pounded on the bottom of thecapsized vessel, using the wrench and flashlight to try to get the attention of anyone within hearing range. Vaessen pounded on the ship’s interior until blisters formed on his hands, but it was worth it. The young sailor, still unaware of the events that had )unfolded, waited until crewmen from the nearby USS Raleigh (CL-7) burned a hole in the bottom of his ship until it was large enough for him to crawl through. Freed from his ordeal, Vaessen got his first look at the devastation that had occurred at Pearl Harbor.

For his bravery in continuing to carry out his duties under life-threatening circumstances, Vaessen was awarded the Navy Cross. John “Jack” Vaessen passed away in 2018 at the age of 101.

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